Building vs. Buying a PC: Why You Should Do One and Not the Other
A couple decades ago, computers seemed like the most mind-blowingly complicated things in the world to the majority of us — some more recent computers are even trying to mimic the human brain. Now, they’re everyday appliances that many of us find indispensable and can navigate as easily as the route from our bedroom to the bathroom in the dark at 4 a.m. We know our computers pretty well — that is, until we open them up. For all of our years of familiarity with the computer’s outside, the innards can seem a total stranger. This unfamiliarity can make the idea of building your own computer seem like the most absurd idea, but it’s not necessarily so difficult and can come with some serious perks.
Custom-built computers can come in all shapes and sizes, and the complexity of building the computer will largely depend on how creative you want to get with it. If you’re here, you’re probably looking at building your first computer and will likely want to keep it simple with a basic machine that’ll get the job done. Here, we’ll look at the biggest benefits and detractors of building your own desktop computer and of buying a computer, and consider which is right for you.
Why you should build your own computer
1. The Price
The first obvious perk of building your own desktop computer is that you can most likely build yourself a rig that doesn’t drain your wallet as much as buying an equivalent computer from a manufacturer. Having someone else put all the components into the box adds a fair bit to the price, and computer sellers like to charge more than is reasonable when you select more powerful components — for proof, just look at the price hike Apple charges when you want more storage in your devices.
2. You know what you’re getting
When you build your own computer, you have to pick out all of the parts. The upside of this is you know what every single part is. If you’re doing your homework properly, you’ll know what the computer will be capable of. When you know exactly what you need to do on your computer, you’ll have a good idea of exactly what your computer needs in it. You’ll also get to save some more money by only buying parts you need. Don’t need Wi-Fi? Don’t buy a wireless card. Don’t need a CD drive? Boom, $50 and a few minutes saved!
3. You’ll understand your computer better
What comes with building your computer and learning about all the components is a more intimate understanding of the machine. One day, if something starts going wrong with your computer, you’ll be more ready to handle the situation, figure out what’s failing, and troubleshoot or replace the part. If you have a RAM module failing, you’ll be ready to replace that sucker yourself — no sending the computer to a manufacturer for warranty repair and being in the lurch for days.
Beyond just building the computer you need for a given task or activity, you can get way more creative when you’re building you own computer. You have your choice of cases and components, and you can go wild with colors, LED lighting, cable management, and water cooling (if that’s a challenge you’re up for). Some people do truly amazing things with their computers, like building them underneath the surface of a glass desk, or building them onto the wall. Your desktop computer doesn’t even have to be a desktop!
OK, so maybe not everyone will feel this, but you should be able to feel some pride in what you’ve done. It takes a bit of work to put together your own computer, and if you’ve gotten creative and build something unique, the pride comes as a perk of the computer. No longer is that metal box under your desk just “some machine.” Now it’s the computer you built.
Why you shouldn’t build your own computer
I’m not going to say building your own computer is easy. It’s like snapping LEGO bricks together — except they’re expensive bricks that might connect and somehow not work together. It’s not nightmarishly difficult, but it will take some studying. There are a lot of great resources online to help you understand the process of building, and other sites like PCPartPicker will help you plan your build and know whether the parts will be compatible. Even after you’ve assembled the computer, it may not start up and could require some troubleshooting to see what’s not working.
2. It’s not just assembly
If you’re not really computer savvy, you might be completely shocked by the first thing you see when you start up your self-built computer. When you buy a Windows or Mac computer, you’re taken to a friendly and simple interface that will help you get started. When you boot up a self-built computer, you’re likely (and hopefully) going to be confronted with the BIOS. These menus will depend on your machine, but if you follow a manual and do some research online, you should be able to work through them and get an operating system installed.
3. The homework
As I’ve mentioned, you have to learn a bit about computers in order to build one. If you don’t, you could miss a critical component and have a machine that won’t start up, or fries itself in minutes. Learning all this isn’t hard, as there are guides and videos all over the internet for almost any computer build you can come up with. The thing is, you’ll need to dedicate some time to understanding the parts, the building process, and the actual components you end up picking.
4. It might not work
To be fair, any computer you get might not work. But if you build your own computer, you’re going to have to figure out why it doesn’t work. If you did your homework, you should be alright, but get ready to scratch your head and do some tinkering. The best case is that something wasn’t fully plugged in and will easily be remedied. A middle case is that you didn’t get a compatible part or perhaps got an insufficient power supply. Worst case is you unwittingly sent a static shock through one of your expensive components and fried it completely.
5. Limited help
While the individual parts of the computer might come with warranties and tech support, the computer as a whole won’t. The company that made your hard drive isn’t going to be walking you through getting your computer to boot properly. If you forgot to put a cooler on your CPU and it burns its own brains out, you can’t send your computer back to a manufacturer — or even the CPU, for that matter. If you want professional help, be prepared to call that techie friend of yours or get ready to pay for it.
Why you should buy a computer
1. It’s easy
There’s a lot you should know before you buy a new computer, but it’s still a simpler process than building a computer. You can still make any number of mistakes buying a computer, with the potential for some extra mistakes if it’s a gaming computer, but they shy in comparison to the number of mistakes you could make building a computer. In general, you just figure out what you need from a computer, pick one that fits the bill, buy it, take it home, and turn it on. You can add a few steps in there to ensure you’re getting a good computer, but it’s still more straightforward than building a computer.
2. Setup is also easy
Once you’ve got it home, plugged in, and booted up, the computer you buy is still going to be easy. You won’t have to navigate BIOS to tell your computer where to find an operating system. Instead, you’ll most likely be confronted with the operating system kindly guiding you through the setup. There are a few things you should do after you buy the computer, but none of it is as difficult as assembling a computer yourself.
3. Problems are easily solved
If your new computer doesn’t turn on like it should, you can just take it back to the store. You didn’t build it, so it’s not your fault if something isn’t working right straight out of the box. Sure, it’s a fuss repackaging everything and shipping or driving it back to the seller, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than trying to figure out why your computer isn’t starting, identifying the problem, and (if you’re lucky and it’s not your fault) returning the faulty component for a replacement.
4. Tech support
Even if there are problems that don’t force you to return the computer, you can likely get tech support from whoever manufactured the computer. That’s no small thing.
5. Time saved
If you’ve got plenty of cash but are short on time, there’s no doubt that just buying a computer is a good option. There are plenty of good computers to be had for the right price. If the time you’d have to spend researching and building and troubleshooting the new computer could have been spent working and earning more money than an already assembled computer would cost, you’re probably better off buying it.
Why you shouldn’t buy a computer
1. Everything comes with a premium
As mentioned before, when you put a component into your computer yourself, that’s money in your pocket. You’ll likely find that the difference in price between two computer parts isn’t the same as the difference in price between a computer with one part and the same computer with the other. For example, the price difference between an AMD Radeon RX470 and RX480 graphics card might be $20, but a computer builder could charge twice that for the upgrade, even if it takes the same effort to install.
2. You might not know the quality of all of the components
If you’ve done your homework, you’ll probably check to make sure the CPU going in is quality, and that all the other components have the right looking numbers. But quality is a major factor all around, and when you let someone else build the computer, you might not always know which exact components you’re getting. A listing might show a 1TB hard drive, but that’s not enough information. It could be a slow drive, or one that’s known for frequent failure. Some computer listings say very vague things like “NVIDIA Graphics” which tells you next to nothing about how powerful the graphics will be. If you’re comparing a pre-built computer to a build you’re planning, consider that the pre-built computer might appear cheaper because it’s skimping on quality.
3. Might not be so easy to upgrade
One issue that comes from not knowing precisely what components are in a computer you buy is that you can’t know for sure what upgrades you’ll be able to do on your own. If you don’t know what motherboard is included, you can’t be sure it’ll have the right connections. Perhaps you want to upgrade the computer to 16GB of RAM because it’s coming with 8GB, but if it’s got two sticks of 4GB RAM and only has two slots, you’re not going to upgrade to 16GB so easily. If you don’t know how much power the computer is drawing from the power supply, you might even risk system stability by adding components.
One of the perks of buying a computer from a manufacturer is also one of the pains. Having a manufacturer setup your computer opens the door for them to pre-install software that they want you to have. So maybe you get to avoid weeding through the BIOS to install an operating system, but you end up weeding through the bloatware on the computer to get rid of it all (or at least what you don’t want).
Sure, you can point to the computer you bought and say, “Look at that. It’s one hell of a computer.” But at the end of the day, you don’t get to say, “I built that.” This doesn’t matter to everyone, though.
Which is right for you?
At this point, you should have a pretty good idea of which process is sounding right to you. But I’ll try to add a little clarity.
If you’ve watched some videos and read some guides on building your own computer and aren’t feeling like it’s something you’re capable of, you might not want to do it. This goes double if you don’t have a bit of extra room in your budget to cover any mishaps you might make in building.
If you feel confident you can do it and want/need to save a bit of money, go right ahead and build your own computer. Just be careful during the build, because if anything gets damaged, finishing the computer might end up more expensive.
If you’re not sure you can do it, but have plenty of cash and really want to try, go for it. In this case, you might try an inexpensive, simple computer build first to wet your feet. When you’re comfortable, then you can go ahead and build the computer of your dreams.
If you’ve got plenty of cash, not much time, and little tech inclination, don’t feel shamed to buy a computer someone else made. You can still get a good one if you do your homework.
If you’ve got the cash, desire, and confidence, then go out there and build a computer that’ll make us all jealous — like this one.